The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights enforces two laws that prohibit discrimination based on disability. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination based on disability in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. The U.S. Department of Education gives grants of financial assistance to schools and colleges. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act provides that a public entity shall take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with participants with disabilities are as effective as communications with others.
The Office of Civil Rights goes on to say that the basis of effectiveness is timeliness of delivery, accuracy of translation, and provision in a manner appropriate to the message and abilities of the individual. Accessible Web Design isn't a goal, it's a path. In the hopes that the Penn State Web will take that path and avoid harmful alternatives, I stressed two points at Web 2002:
Webmasters at Penn State are communicators working in positions that didn't exist eight years ago. They can be characterized as dedicated seekers of the information they need to both improve their own performance and make the Web work for Penn Staters.
To find out what makes a Web page render the way it does, or what HTML trick will guarantee that the information is delivered clearly and usably, most Webmasters check the Web. WebMonkey, Builder.com, developerWorks, or WDVL all provide helpful information. If shown the need for additional design considerations on pages accessed by students who use screen reading technology, students with learning disabilities, and students with motor impairment, among others, Webmasters will begin seeking the information they need to make Penn State Web pages universally accessible.
When a new classroom is built, there's more than just an awareness of the need for accessible entrances, elevators, and fixtures; there's a set of standards established by Federal law that architects adhere to as they create a design. As we continue to build virtual classrooms on the Web, more than just awareness of accessible Web design is needed by faculty and staff creating the designs.
Web development that takes place without a well defined requirement of accessibility may run several risks. The work may need to be re-done later, development may be slowed as Webmasters struggle with unanswered questions, and the outcome may lead to undelivered information, frustration, and anger. It may also mean that software and hardware improvements that could improve accessibility aren't given a priority.
If a Penn State webmaster wants to follow standards, they don't know which standards to follow: Section 508 standards as implemented by the Federal government, the W3C's Priority 1 standards, or some combination of their Priority 1, 2, and 3 standards. Should a site be compliant or accessible?
Penn State webmasters may have trouble sorting through conflicts to determine how to meet an actual or potential audience's needs: A student with a vision impairment may require text without images while a student with a motor impairment may require large graphic buttons. If webmasters are to make choices, how do they decide?
If a webmaster wants to test pages for accessibility, they can't tell which hardware or software to use: WindowEyes screen reading software reads what accessible content can be accessed in a Flash file, but JAWS screen reading software can't. Opera increases text size differently than most screen magnifiers. Is there a standard for us to test against?
There's no standard place for Penn State webmasters to turn for coding or design help: The Penn State Web Styleguide offers links to some accessibility information but offers none of it's own (and doesn't include the well recognized ITS Accessibility site in its links.) There are different sets of standards with conflicting criticisms appearing on many discussion lists; what does Penn State support?